Brain matters at MSU

Comprehending the amazingly complex organ that is the human brain is, well, mind-boggling.
As President Barack Obama noted in an April announcement of a proposed $100 million in federal funding for brain research: “As humans, we can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom, but we still haven't unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter sitting between our ears.”

Public interest in understanding the brain has spiked, says Michigan State University neuroscientist Marc Breedlove, whose research on how hormones alter the part of the brain that affects sexual orientation has been featured on “60 Minutes.”

“Interest in brain research is being driven largely by advancements in imaging technology, especially magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, and its ability to take intricate images of the brain,” he says. “There’s also more public acceptance of cognitive science, which explores issues such as consciousness, sexual orientation and criminal responsibility.”

Coronal sections of a human brain

Coronal Sections of the Human Brain

Breedlove, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the development of the central nervous system, came from the University of California–Berkeley in 2001 to be MSU’s first Barnett Rosenberg Professor of Neuroscience.

“It’s clear that neuroscience is one of the areas that MSU is investing in, and I think the investment is timely,” says Breedlove.

Unlocking secrets of the brain

Michigan State’s brain-research portfolio is among the most diverse in the nation. Spartan researchers across campus are digging into the age-old secrets of the brain from just about every conceivable angle.

Breedlove’s groundbreaking research on the impact of hormones on the brain proved that a male rat could be made to behave like a female for the rest of its life—and vice versa for a female—just by altering the testosterone the rats are exposed to at birth. Now he and colleague Cynthia Jordan, professor of neuroscience, are drawing closer to discovering how testosterone affects the brain to reduce anxiety.

Tracey Covassin, associate professor of kinesiology, is tackling a very different kind of impact on the brain. Covassin works with young athletes on concussion prevention and recovery, and her research shows female athletes and younger people take longer to recover from these brain injuries.

Rahul Shrivastav, chairperson of the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders, is breaking new ground in yet another type of research related to the brain. As patients read a sequence of sentences into a microphone, Shrivastav monitors the speech patterns using pioneering software he developed for detecting Parkinson’s disease, a brain disorder affecting millions worldwide.

“It’s one of the grand scientific problems—to understand the human brain—and Michigan State has a unique perspective and a unique opportunity to attack this problem that may differ from other institutions,” says James Galligan, director of MSU’s Neuroscience Program and a professor of pharmacology and toxicology who studies how the brain regulates gut function.

Launched in 1975, the Neuroscience Program has grown to include about 75 affiliated faculty members. Traditionally focused on training doctoral students, the program in 2012 recognized the need to bolster undergraduate training and become one of the first in Michigan to offer a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience.

“It’s very exciting to be part of neuroscience right now,” Galligan says, “and I’m really excited and optimistic about the next few years here at MSU.”

Gretchen Birbeck

Gretchen Birbeck checks on a young boy in the children’s ward of a clinic in Chikankata, Zambia. Birbeck has dedicated her professional life to bringing epilepsy out of the shadows, treating those with it, and researching ways to prevent it in the first place. Photo by Kurt Stepnitz

Relentlessly pursuing answers

Brain research at MSU also extends beyond the Neuroscience Program and campus boundaries, sometimes spanning continents—and decades.

Gretchen Birbeck has spent 20 years studying epilepsy resulting from cerebral malaria some 8,000 miles away from East Lansing in sub-Saharan Africa. Currently, the professor of neurology and ophthalmology is conducting a drug trial aimed at improving seizure control with the hope of finding a path toward epilepsy prevention.

Birbeck, who exemplifies MSU’s commitment to solve real-world problems, spends six months each year working in Africa. When she first went there as a medical student, Birbeck thought the reason she was leaving the United States was curiosity.

“But I think it might have been a bit more than that,” she says. “Within five or six weeks of being there, I realized this was actually what I was looking for when I went into medicine—to be somewhere where there was such a need that it felt like the useful thing to do.”

At MSU’s College of Human Medicine in Grand Rapids, a team of researchers seeks solutions to the devastating effects of Parkinson’s disease. To that end, Caryl Sortwell, professor of translational science and molecular medicine, is helping investigate a drug called Fasudil that has the potential to not only alleviate Parkinson’s symptoms but also halt the disease’s progression.

“Together, our organizations share the goal of helping those afflicted with Parkinson’s to live better lives as a result of our respective research programs,” Sortwell says of the joint effort involving MSU, the Van Andel Institute and the Translational Genomics Research Institute.

Making a difference across disciplines

Jodene Fine, assistant professor of counseling educational psychology, and special education, was the first to discover that the brains of children with nonverbal learning disabilities—long considered a phantom diagnosis—actually are different than the brains of their peers. Photo courtesy of College of Education

Natalie Phillips, assistant professor of English, placed study participants in an MRI while they read Jane Austen novels and found that blood flow increased in areas of the brain far beyond those associated with reading. The work could shed new light on the debate over the value of studying literature.

The discovery by A. J. Robison, assistant professor of physiology, of a molecular process in the brain that is activated by cocaine use could give researchers insight into how addiction occurs and help pave the way for new treatments for addicts.

Issidoros Sarinopoulos, professor of radiology, studied patients’ biological response to their doctors and found that a doctor–patient relationship built on trust and empathy changes the brain’s response to stress and increases pain tolerance. Photo by G.L. Kohuth

Research conducted by Kimberly Fenn, assistant professor of psychology, indicates that sleep may help reduce errors in memory.

Thinking about the future

MSU and Lansing’s Sparrow Hospital recognized another critical need for brain research and disease treatment. Earlier this year, the Sparrow Stroke Center—a partnership between the two institutions—became the first facility in Michigan and one of only about 20 nationally to be certified as a Comprehensive Stroke Center by the Joint Commission.

The designation reflects a joint effort to conduct stroke research and treat complex cases such as that of James Cady, a 42-year-old Lansing man who suffered a massive stroke and was promptly treated by physicians from Sparrow and the MSU HealthTeam at the center.

“My stroke was serious enough that I could have died,” says Cady, who has made a remarkable recovery with few residual effects from his stroke and continues to receive rehabilitative treatment. “Instead, I’m able to continue my active lifestyle as a runner, thanks to the excellent care I receive.”

What’s ahead as the momentum builds to better understand the brain?

Neuroscience Program Director James Galligan says MSU is well positioned to make important contributions, particularly if scholars are able to work together on big, interdisciplinary projects, which tend to receive federal funding.

Typical of other MSU brain researchers who have made valuable discoveries, Jodene Fine considers her finding about the differences in brains of children with nonverbal learning disabilities to be just “one interesting piece of the puzzle.” But it’s a piece that may be critical to helping children with learning disorders.

Rosenberg Professor Mark Breedlove anticipates many more of these kinds of life-changing discoveries.

“Will we ever understand the brain entirely? I don’t know,” he says. “But every year it seems more feasible to me than it did the year before.”

Story by Andy Henion - Design by Deon Foster